Posts tagged Harbin

More photos of China from 1986-88

cranes in Qiqihar

These cranes were up in Qiqihar, northern China, north of Harbin. They are considered good luck among the Chinese, they also live to be 100 years old.  They are big birds and have the red part on their head.  Magnificent birds!

making noodles 1987

Back in town, you could see vendors making noodles by just swinging around dough in a circle like a jump rope…then they would separate out into noodles to eat.  Pretty amazing to watch your lunch go from dough to be boiled up as a noodle to eat with other dishes.

Darrell Parr, photographer

Above is Darrell Parr who was the photographer of all these photos I’ve been showing. I can’t take the credit for them.  Darrell is about to turn 90 and his son transferred all his slides to digital and so I have gone through the 100s that were made available to show on this blog.

Pick a bike, any bike

This bike rack is just down the main street in Harbin, Heilongjiang where off to the left you can see the Quilin department store that was built by the Russians earlier.  Whenever we would go to buy something at this store, it was always like Christmas every day.  The people trying to buy things were 3 deep and to try and get the clerk’s attention to get what was under the glass display case was always a trial.  They were not too cooperative as they didn’t seem to care about the customer.  Different from our American motto: “The customer is always right.”

Things have really changed in China since these days of photos taken by Darrell from 1986-88.

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My time in China photos

Chinese wagonI lived and taught English at H.I.T. in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China from 1986-88.  These are photos taken from slides and transferred digitally.  Amazing what I saw back then and what I have forgotten over 30 years later.  I DO remember going to a restricted city in NE China and going on a steam engine train.  Here’s a train looking like it is full of steam.  What was memorable about the one I rode was that it would stop every 15-20 minutes to fill up at the next water station.  I didn’t sleep well for that whole night ride.  China train

There were the church bells and other European buildings in Harbin that I observed. Someone on my team was REALLY into the history of the area and learned a lot from the members of the Orthodox church.  How I wish I would have written down what Rich said about the Polish and Russian worshippers who continued having services in the old churches built a century ago.  Chinese bell monument

Orthodox church in Harbin

I’ll share more photos of old time China tomorrow.  Fun to review what was part of that era and how much China has changed since the 1980s.

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My thoughts in the late 1980s on China’s pedagogy

The following is part of a paper I wrote for my education professor back in the winter of 1989. I had just returned from Harbin, China the summer of 1988 and wanted to finish my M.A. degree at the University of Minnesota.  I already knew what my thesis paper was going to be on.  I was looking at the learning styles of Chinese students in the academic setting in the U.S. and how they necessarily made their adjustments to our kind of pedagogy. I had three roommates who were Chinese, one from mainland and the other two from Taiwan. I was surrounded by a campus that had over 800 Chinese students studying at Minnesota.  That was the biggest delegation of Chinese students at an American university, it still may be 25 years later.

The reason I am writing this on my blog is to find out from people in Kazakhstan whether there are any similarities or differences in what I wrote yesterday and today.  I welcome your comments.

“My last point is how the Chinese students view grammar and vocabulary as all important. Since I taught in the Institute of Technology (Chinese version of M.I.T.), I had students in the sciences. Their knowledge of the technical language of English was very specific and specialized. They maybe knew 3,000 to 4,000 English words but did not know how to put words together to speak one sentence. Their want to amass a huge vocabulary in English probably goes back to their own having to learn so many Chinese characters from such an early age. There are about 50,000 characters in the Chinese dictionary, to be considered an intellectual you need to know about 15,000 of those characters. The common Chinese person to read the newspaper needs to know about 3,000 characters. Therefore, there is a heavy emphasis on knowing words and grammar.

The Chinese teachers who had to teach English to their classes clung desperately to the small part of text and made sure they knew all the grammar points possible.  This goes back to the teacher being the absolute authority and in total command of the classroom. If the students should even dare to ask that the teacher might not know how to answer, the teacher would most assuredly lose face. This was to be avoided at all costs so they presumed that we, as native speakers of English, knew all the answers to English grammar. (smile) We were asked a lot of grammar questions.

Our American approach to foreign language study is different in that we would still pay attention to grammar and vocabulary but more so to application of the language. Trial and error is permissible in the American setting and this goes back to the student-centered concept of learning.  (It also hearkens back to our land was created by many immigrant groups who arrived and struggled to learn English as their second language)

After many attempts at changing from Confucian thoughts, through surviving revolutions, the Confucian influence is still prevalent within the Chinese classroom. It continues to be teacher-centered, textbook-centered and grammar-centered. Perhaps the Chinese will try to adopt some of our teaching methodologies to aid in their attempt to quickly learn the English language. However, I believe that for the most part, education is culture bound. The Chinese culture can no more get rid of Confucian ways any more than we can relinquish Socratic influences in our own educational system. The two are very dissimilar and yet both methodologies have the same goal in mind, to teach those that want to learn.”

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Thoughts about China in the late 1980s

The following is a two part series, today and tomorrow. I had just come back from China and was enrolled in Dr. Robert Beck’s education class at the University of Minnesota on the Minneapolis campus.  I wrote this essay the winter of 1989. The Tiananmen Square incident was waiting to happen in the spring. I had two years of teaching in China and did not know what was going on under the surface for many of my university students as well as all throughout China.  See what you think might be similar or different from Kazakhstan and their teaching methodologies.

During my two years of teaching English in China, I learned a lot about my own teaching. Of course I had taken courses in college to learn “how” to teach as all good American teachers are taught to do.  However, when I went to China, it was not uncommon for American teachers to compare notes on “how” the Chinese teachers taught. So close yet to the years of the Cultural Revolution atrocities, these Chinese teachers had been programmed by the Communist party on “what” to teach. Many of the older teachers in my Foreign Language Department had taught Russian before. Now they had learned English as yet another foreign language and were expected to teach that. They were affectionately termed “Russian Retreads” by a fellow American teacher. I lived in Harbin, China which is close to Russia and had been pioneered and industrialized by the Russians less than 100 years ago. The White Russians who had fled from Russia after 1917 were very influential in Harbin.

My teaching experience in Harbin may be uncommon to most other parts of China in many ways, but the same Chinese method of teaching was used in all the classrooms. The following quote from one of my writing students last year will show that he noted a difference in methods of teaching. I do admit it is complimentary to me and that is why I copied it from his journal to mine. But I use his own words because the difference in teaching had not escaped him and I am sure he had not been taught that there was a difference in our methodologies.

“I feel happy and relaxed when we have foreign teacher’s class. I don’t know the reason; perhaps their method of teaching is success[ful]. I am used to the custom of Chinese; the total feeling is the serious, lack of humor. Maybe because of this, the young students lack an inventive ability. So I think we not only learn knowledge from foreign teachers but learn the bright and cheerful disposition.”

I will give a brief overview of the difference between the Chinese and American methodologies of teaching. First of all, instruction in the American classroom is student-centered. The teacher learns how to elicit thinking by asking the students questions and validating each response as a valuable contribution to the class. For the Chinese instructor, the me-centered responses and judgments made by the students are irrelevant. In China, education is teacher-centered and only the teacher has valid judgments. The teacher gives out pre-packaged information. According to John Dewey, supposedly the father of western education, he believed that teaching was a way of stimulating students to do their own thinking. The learners are encouraged to discover answers on their own after the teacher has facilitated in making the information available to them to process.

This was obvious to me after I would ask a series of questions about the material and have my Chinese students’ faces turned down, too afraid to respond. To try to get a discussion going was not easy, in fact, near impossible. They were so ready for me as the teacher to pour the information into their opened heads.

The second difference that I saw which goes along with my first point is that I would seek differing points of view only to get the prevailing party line. In China, the teacher has absolute authority, because in the States the teacher encourages a diversity of opinions. I would have my students give speeches on different subjects and soon I heard the same political statement over and over again. If I, as the American teacher, was not going to be the absolute authority, what came through in their speeches was pure, party doctrine. According to Clark Kerr and what he wrote in 1978, the Chinese government has taught them since they were in day care centers and kindergarten what to say and do.

The third view that I saw prevalent in the classroom which was different from what I was accustomed to was that any given body of knowledge is finite. The Chinese have had thousands of years’ experience holding to a very rigid and narrow scheme of scholasticism, according to Ho Yen Sun in a book printed in 1913.  The mark of the best educated man in China was the one who knew the classics inside and out. It was not theirs to question or analyze by practical application, but this finite body of knowledge was there to memorize. Memorize they did, the Chinese have memorized their culture.

My suspicion is that this memory of the classics dates back to 231-201 B.C. when Mencius and his philosophy had many schools of thought contending for power. It was when Emperor Shi Hwang Ti ordered that all the ancient books be burned, including those of Confucius, that the existing system of education was ended.  Supposedly this tyrannical ruler had also ordered 460 scholars be burned alive along with their books.

When Emperor Kao-Ti came into power during the Han dynasty, he realized the importance of education. As a reversal to the earlier order, he called for a search of the lost writings. Old scholars were prevailed upon to remember, old walls were razed to find old books concealed in them, according to Ho Yen Sun. Perhaps this can explain the source of how the textbook became so revered by the Chinese. It continues to be the central focus in the classroom setting.

In my teaching experience, I was assigned a textbook to teach from in my writing class. There were chapters that I chose and printed up in a syllabus. Knowing that skipping around in the textbook was going against the sensibilities of my Chinese students, I kept reminding them that we did not have time to cover all the points in the book, we were just going to hit the high points. I did not hear any objections directed to me about this but I did feel guilty because I knew of the importance of the WHOLE textbook.

The passion to learn the entire book according to the Chinese system results in some problems where the students amass a great deal of book knowledge but then they are not able to analyze and tackle problems. Practical application is what I kept driving home to my writing students; no amount of memorizing was going to help them to be better writers. I wanted them to keep writing in their journals so I could find out where they were. Learning everything by rote also inhibits the students from being creative. That is a necessary attribute when applying researching skills in the new areas of science and technology, according to Gu Mingyuan.”

(to be continued)

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More examples of “Guanxi” in China


Guanxi is an important word in China. It includes a lot of information for history, culture and relationships among people. The Chinese think guanxi is so powerful that it can help them to get a lot of unfinished things accomplished. First of all, a definition of “guanxi” according to Eagan and Weiner (2007) is the following: “…a way to get ahead is to know someone who can help provide a better opportunity…to know someone in a position of power willing to help you.” (p. 63) Perhaps Americans hold to a similar concept of “networking” where we try to meet as many people as possible to maybe help land a job. Maybe for the more outgoing and gregarious, Americans like to have many acquaintances and “friends.”

Over twenty-five years ago, as an unsuspecting American, I had never experienced the power of the word “guanxi.” After living in China in the late 1980s, it was interesting for me to learn more about it.  I believe most westerners may have an idea about what it is like, perhaps akin to “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.”  However, as I learned from my living and teaching in China for two years that it was much more powerful a concept than a random scratch to an occasional itch.  I will provide several examples of when guanxi was used in my experience and how maybe we as Americans might have something similar in principle or practice while being totally unaware of it.

At the time, I did not know why Carolyn (her English name) who was one of my Chinese students, knitted a beautiful green, cabled wool sweater for me. I bought the sufficient amount of skeins of yarn at the store and she did the rest.  Harbin, in the northeastern part of China is known to be very cold and she knew I needed to wear something warm for the oncoming winter.  I do not know that I did anything for her except have her over to practice English.  Later I found out that perhaps I was supposed to help her gain entrance to a university in the U.S.  I wonder about Carolyn these many years later. Every time I had put on that sweater I thought good thoughts about her.

Another instance of how guanxi was used in my case was when Stephen (English name) wanted to practice doing an oil painting portrait of me.  I still have the painting today but I don’t recall doing anything for Stephen except sitting and posing for him for several hours. He told me through his friend that he wanted to practice painting western noses (Dai Baize = BIG nose)  Stephen, as an artist, had been sent out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and so he had not learned how to speak English. He had been penalized for his talent. Fortunately we were able to communicate through his Chinese friend who was one of my engineering students.  So maybe Stephen wanted to be close to the power structure of my university at Ha Gong Da.  I also still wonder why Stephen went to Dalian with me and my sister and another student to help transport my 3 meter by 4 meter carpet for me that was put in a crate that was about the size of a coffin.  I was never able to repay Stephen for his service mentality of helping me. I never got him a job or found him other people he could paint for profit.

My young Chinese friends, Carolyn and Stephen’s expectations were that I help improve their lives in some way.  According to what Eagan and Weiner (2011), they claim with the beginning of communism, people of authority may not have been paid much in high salaries, but they had prestige and authority given them.  With these privileges of helping others, the senior ranking government officials could amass more power by gaining respect and trust of others under them.

I believe that Americans may be confused by this concept of “guanxi” because we have a different value orientation in place where westerners may do acts of kindness for others without any expectation of it being reciprocated. The following anecdote is what one of my Chinese students wrote about his experiences in China concerning this:

“I have seen many examples of how Chinese depend totally on “GUAN XI”. I have a friend who hadn’t high enough scores to study in high school. And his father found an officer who is a manager in education. Now my friend studies in a famous high school. Also I met a businessman who was ready to apply for a project but he had many opponents. He had a friend who is in the management for this project. Obviously, he got this project at the end.”


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Memories of Harbin’s Ice Lantern Festival

Please go back in time with me about 25 years ago when I lived for two years in Harbin, the cold northeastern part of China. I enjoyed the breathtaking, beautiful sights of the Ice Lantern Festival which happened every January up to Chinese new year. I actually think Astana, Kazakhstan should have such a winter festival as well. However, that would mean the Kazakhs would need to ask the Chinese experts to come help them carve the huge ice blocks.  That won’t be happening any time soon due to sticky political reasons. Let’s just say there is an old, border tension that exists between these uneasy neighbors of Kazakhstan and China.

I do remember what a thrill it was for me, as an American, when the Harbin ice carvers came to St. Paul, MN back in the early 1990s to show Minnesotans how to do the intricate cuts into the ice blocks.  Back then in Harbin, the Chinese workers would take huge frozen ice blocks from the Songhua River and chip away the different shapes of animals and people.  I’m not sure HOW they quarried the ice on such a large scale, what was even more amazing were the intricate designs they chiseled on a micro scale. One of the experts used a little carved wood piece on top of his block as a kind of model.  The carvers needed to work carefully but quickly to make their exhibition ready for the judges.

With all the carvers stationed at their block, the whole park was starting to fill up with huge statues that looked like crystal.  For example, one exhibit was a dragon.  Another was of a pheasant where the artist delicately cut away the slender, fragile feathers.  A marvel to behold.  An owl was represented with outstretched wings and I saw many other examples, even some done by visiting Canadian artists.

One adventure while at the Ice Lantern Festival was our taking a horse drawn sled out to the middle of the frozen Songhua River. My friend and I watched the Chinese men take their daily plunge into the river.  These dedicated swimmers go into serious year round training for this event so their bodies are used to the frigid cold.  It was actually warmer in the water than outside of their carved out area, the size of a pool, where they did laps.

On the particular day we went to see these “walruses” take their dip, the wind chill factor was at an all time low.  None of the native Harbin people were crazy enough to watch this matinee showing of the swimmers.  In fact, it was very difficult for me to get my hand outside of my glove to even take a photograph.  How cold it must have been for these swimmers donning only their swimming trunks and flip flops!  For the high dive, they had blocks of ice atop one another, I have bone chilled photos to prove it!

Thankfully we got back to the sheltered “warmth” of the riverbank to enjoy the other entertainment with brightly lit castles and other structures (made out of ice but with colored lights inside). The whole Chinese family (remember “one-child policy was already in affect) came to enjoy. A Chinese family meant ma + pa + only child. Collectively the children would careen down the twisted slope down to the bottom to continue sliding across the ice of the frozen river.  Gleeful shouts of exhilaration could be heard from the little children who were under the watchful eyes of their doting parents.

We often would see toddlers or older wear a coat with sleeves nearly dragging to the ground.  The idea was that the child would eventually grow into the jacket.  Also the color of choice for young children was red, it was anathema for adults back in that era to wear red. Some Chinese were horrified that I, as a 30 something, young woman wore red sometimes. Although even while I was living in China that fashion trend was soon starting to change from the dour looking Mao jackets the older generation wore.  Perhaps these days you might not see too many dark blue Mao jackets.

(to be continued)

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Friendships Built in China and Cultural Revolution Memories

The following is a continuation of what I have started to write the last several blog posts. You see, I’ve been going through my old notes of my teaching experience in China.  It has nothing to do with Kazakhstan or human trafficking but if you read towards the end you can see how inhumane man can be against man.

Back in the 1980s when I lived in Harbin, the Chinese people were very aware that in order to build up their society, they must have good friendships with the western world.  Even though their customs are different from ours, they are trying to change rapidly.  One sign I had noticed in keeping with that theme was:  “Do Well in Sanitation – Build up Socialist Civilization.”  That was a case where the authorities were strongly advocating a new, no-spitting policy. They fined people who were caught spitting in public.

My job description as an English teacher in China was to build friendships while China kept building apartment complexes with red brick and bamboo poles.  The men would bring their heavy burdens to the top of six story buildings singing together in rhythm to lighten the load.  There would be teams of eight men who would haul heavy beams of cement while the leader would call out commands of which way to walk and when to stop together.  The bamboo poles were propped up on the sides of buildings to catch falling bricks OR men.  The piles of cement bags were either brought in by mule and cart or by truck. The men would work their way down the six stories of building by cementing the sides and securing the balconies.

Such hard, manual labor, I hope these men were paid well for their long hours in the hot sun under such conditions…but that was back in the 1980s. I hope working conditions have improved.

Like I mentioned earlier, my job was to build up relationships with the Chinese people at my university. I met some very fine people like Lu Bin.  She was responsible for finding me at the Beijing Intl. airport and taking me to Harbin by train.  Her father’s name was Mr. Lu. They invited me to their place to enjoy eating jiaozi which is like a meat dumpling.  To eat this delicacy, it must be dipped in soy sauce and vinegar.  Yes it is considered among the Chinese a great social activity, perhaps comparable to our pizza parties.

Sadly, at the age of 10, my new friend Lu Bin had been separated from her intellectual parents and was not reunited with them until ten years later.  The stories I heard about the Cultural Revolution started sounding the same.  With each sad story I learned from each different family, it spoke volumes of the lunacy that the whole country of China underwent from 1966-76.  As a result, Lu Bin, lost out on a chance for a good education.  She knew little English while I knew as little Chinese. We got along great!

Lu Feng, Lu Bin’s brother was younger than her so he was not affected by the Cultural Revolution.  Fortunately he was able to learn English and went to Canada to study.  For the time I was in China teaching English I enjoyed being with my highly motivated students.  They worked hard for me because they wanted to pass the national examination that would determine who would get to go abroad for more study. Many of my university students were older and were doctors, teachers and managers of factories.

To pass the time when we weren’t teaching, my teammate Rich would give tours of the city of Harbin.  He was totally absorbed in the history of the city and showed us the sites, even to where the old foreigners graveyard was outside the city limits of Harbin. A few of the gravestone markers had porcelain pictures of the deceased still in tact.  Most of the faces, however, had been chipped away by vandals during the Cultural Revolution.  About in the 1960s the prestigious grave stones and their coffins were moved from the center of Harbin to the countryside.

Back 85 years from this present date, Harbin was living in the heyday of the White Russians who had fled Russia after the 1917 revolution.  They made a lot of money in the timber business and as a result, many of the Russian made buildings were well built and are still standing in Harbin today (at least that was true 25 years ago).  Some of the places that Rich liked to take us on his tour were several Russian Orthodox churches still in existence. One church had only a handful of the original Russians who had lived in Harbin in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Meatov brothers from Poland still regularly attended services with the chanting of the liturgy from the main priest.

At the time I lived in Harbin, there was only ONE Protestant church still open and known as the “Three-Self Church.” Though splitting at the seams because so many attended this service, it was tightly controlled by the communist government.  The architecture reminded me of an old German or Norwegian Lutheran church. In the old days it perhaps seated about 200 people, but when I went to visit it there were seats up the stairs in the balcony and main floor, all to overflowing.  I would guess that 600 people attended a Sunday morning service because people sat outside the windows of the church or sat in the basement or fellowship hall.  Oh for such fervency of faith that the Americans should have with their well manicured and coifed churches. The people recited the Apostles creed together and even sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Chinese.  Imagine MY thrill to hear something so familiar yet in a different tongue.

Another onion-domed church situated close to the market was a landmark in Harbin. It had been closed soon after it had been built in the early 1920s and used as a warehouse instead. I had been told that the acoustics were great and on some rare occasions, Rich was able to get inside the old church and go to the top.  The front entrance was bricked up and blocked with “stuff.”  Maybe things have changed from 25 years ago, maybe this particular church is in use for its original purpose of worship. I’d like to think so. Someone from Harbin, China will have to let me know if there are any Chinese who read this blog. One other church was used as a light industry factory to make clothes. Yes, many changes have taken place since the Russians dominated the area.

Finally, I got to know several of the Chinese who had English names…they each had interesting stories.  Shiela told me that during the Cultural Revolution, her parents had been separated and set to work in the countryside in different provinces.  She was only four years old at the time and was taken care of by her 6 year old brother.  She remembers crying every day for two years. Her family had since been restored together and they each had high positions in their city.

Not only did the intellectuals suffer during the Cultural Revolution, but the artists did as well.  Stephen had been sent out to the countryside to be re-educated for about four years. Stephen painted a portrait of me because he wanted to practice painting western noses (they are considered BIG compared to their Asian noses).  The sign of beauty for a Chinese woman is to have big eyes, small nose and small mouth. I suppose Stephen tried to compliment me with that same prescriptive look.

I heard many troubling stories about the Cultural Revolution, but maybe most of today’s Chinese students don’t know this sad era in their most recent history.  I’m wondering what the Kazakh students know of their history.  What do American students know of theirs?

Stay tuned for more about my adventures in China!

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China Changes, Kazakhstan too?

Will Kazakhstan change for the better or worse, like China? Kazakhstan has high goals to be in the top 50 developed nations in the world by the year 2030.  Will the Kazakh people succeed?  I’ve been going through old notes from my files about my time spent in China. Perhaps there are some similarities with the Kazakhs and the Chinese, see what you think.

Not sure how many Chinese currently live in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. Back when I lived in this fine city, in the late 1980s, there were three million Chinese and very few foreigners. However, it was often referred to as the “Paris of the East” or the “Moscow of the East,” it just depended on who you talked to.  This massive city was once a slumbering fishing town on the Song Hua River just sixty years before I arrived in 1986.  The Russians had helped to build it up which could be noted by the architecture.  The river traffic on the river ranged from ferry boats, motor boats and rowboats.  An old Russian yacht club had been turned into a R & R place for Chinese government officials called “cadres.”

Harbin is known for at least two things: Sun Island and the annual Ice Lantern Festival.  Sun Island was made popular by a song every Chinese seemed to know and you had to cross the SongHua River on a ten minute ferry boat ride to get to the island.  You would see remnants of the old, Russian dachas with their distinct architecture and trimmings.  However, the festival is most notable because of the ice carvers who would descend on the area to mold ice chiseled from the river into fantastic figures of animals, people and building structures.  Walking through the brightly lit lantern festival was like going in a HUGE open air icebox.  COLD!

The train in China is heavily used and the most reliable for the everyday people. One of the routes for the Trans Siberian started in Harbin. Back then, there were still steam locomotives and I rode on one to a restricted area once.  An all-night endurance test of stopping every 15 miles for more fuel or water. You knew it was a stop because the engineer would slam on the brakes and you felt like you would fly off your berth to the floor.  Sleep was impossible.

They also had electric buses but I would rarely use them because they were always packed.  Especially in the winter when the windows were frosted over, you couldn’t see outside to find out whether you had reached your destination or not.  You had to count each stop to know when to get off.  But getting to the door was like playing the game of Twister with little hope of getting to the exit in time before the doors slammed shut.  I preferred walking or if need be, taking the taxi as a last resort.

Bicyclists had their own lane along side all the buses and cars.  It seemed that everyone in China owned a bike and parking lots for bikes were huge.  How to find one’s own bike was always a mystery to me.  They all looked alike.  Some people would rig up carts in front or behind their bikes to haul things.  I remember seeing one guy having about ten dead chickens hanging upside down on his handle bars.  I guess he was going to market with them.

Sometimes I would see blue “Liberation” trucks that had come in from the farms with their produce (cabbage, watermelon, etc).  They all were of the same model and style since Liberation in 1949.  Even into the 1980s, they hadn’t changed much in thirty years.  I wonder if they are still making them?

I also wonder if the older Chinese people are still wearing the ubiquitous Mao suits. That was considered THEE fashion of its day, everyone looked alike in their dark blue, buttoned up the front uniformed outfits.

A Muslim presence was evidenced in Harbin even though originally built up by the Russians. How did one know this while strolling down the busy streets of Harbin?  You just had to know that restaurants, which didn’t serve pork, festooned the blue paper lantern and blue trimmings in the windows and doors.

Billboards wouldn’t compete well with the Stateside ones.  Some billboards encouraged the populace to stick with the one-child policy. Others exhorted people to use good traffic safety.  Funnier ones would advertise auditorium chairs, copier machines or other essentials.  A whole different concept of advertising happened in this non-capitalistic society.  I wonder what the billboards look like now in China.

As was true in the former Soviet Union where I lived for a total of ten years in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, it was rare to see apartment complexes that exceeded 5 or 6 stories. That way people walked up those flights of stairs and they didn’t need to put in elevators.  Win-win except for those who felt winded by the time they carried their groceries to the very top floor.  Built in work out times.

To me, there was nothing aesthetically pleasing with about 99% of the homes in Harbin. There were no yards with grass, no flowers.  You would see t.v. antennas attached to little dwellings with sheds in front of the homes. It seemed lifeless except for occasional trees.  However, it was important for every apartment complex to have a balcony porch to put up the laundry to dry. So you knew people lived in these places as the clothes waved in the wind.

The PRC (People Republic of China) flag still waves the same even if everything else has changed since I lived in Harbin over 25 years ago.  The flag has four smaller gold stars in a crescent shape outside of a larger gold star.  I didn’t master singing their national anthem but I did get on national t.v. singing our American national anthem with two other American teachers.  But that’s another story.  We heard from teachers we knew in other parts of China who saw us on t.v. at different times.  Yes, we were rare as foreigners back in the 1980s.

The building I taught in was the main part of the Harbin Institute of Technology campus. The foreboding appearance of this place seemed to call back memories of when the Russians dominated the Heilongjiang area.  H.I.T. was founded in 1920.  Back when I was there in the 1980s it had a teaching staff of over 1,500 to 10,000 Chinese students.  It was and still is considered a key university, like the M.I.T. of China.

The emphasis of the university was engineering.  Twelve departments were in Management, Precision Instruments, Computer Science, Radio Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Automatic Control, Applied Physics. I lived in a Foreigners Guest house with people from Japan, the Soviets and a woman from Ireland.

Hindsight shows what I didn’t know then but do now. There was a fierce nationalistic pride among the Soviets who ate at the same table every noon meal with us Americans.  The “Soviets” were conversant in English in different degrees. Larissa was from Estonia and was the Russian teacher, her English probably was the worst.  However, she was the first I knew who had a VHS player for videos, her English improved markedly over the two years I knew her.

People like Isa (means Jesus) was a Muslim from Azerbaijan and Nick from Latvia (don’t EVER call them Russians) spoke the best English even though they also spoke Russian (and their native language).  Tomas was from Georgia and there was another physics guy. From where, I don’t remember but he didn’t believe in dreams.  I learned that each Soviet was proud of his own country and ethnic background. Very proud and now I realize that the time we spent together at meals was when the Soviet Union was starting to have huge fractures in their structure as a monolithic country.  Who knew?

Things have changed dramatically for the Soviet Union and they have also for China. One student asked me this very perplexing question: “Today the U.S. is a very modernized, advanced country, science knowledge has already been taught to most of the people. In the eyes of science, there is no God, but WHY some of you believe?” Another variation of that question was “The U.S. is such a young country (250 years) and China is a very old country (thousands of years), why is the U.S. so much more advanced?”

To many of my H.I.T. student their “god” is science, Marxism or communism.  China was referred to as a sleeping giant. Their goal that was uppermost in my students’ minds was to advance in technology by the year 2000 so they would be equal to other western countries.  Maybe they have succeeded…maybe not.

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Smiling vs. Smelling in China

I taught in Harbin, Heilongjiang China from 1986-88, northeast part of the country. Think cold! I’m going through old notes that I took and kept from my Chinese students.  I was asked to be a judge at a speech contest of Chinese university students at Ha Gong Da (H.I.T.), at the university where I taught 100s of students.  Fortunately I had this student and he gave me the copy of what he had so aptly memorized.  Too bad he hadn’t gotten feedback from foreigners about the pronunciation of the /ay/ sound in “smile” and the /E/ sound in “smell.”  I had all I could do to not bust out laughing at how often he mispronounced the simple word “smile” over and over again to sound like SMELL.  The whole time he WAS smiling oblivious to his error. Sometimes I thought he was doing it on purpose. Maybe it is still only funny to me, see what you think. (Believe me, the Chinese laughed aplenty at the mistakes I made with their four tones).


I like smiling. I like s. because I love life. I love the world I’m living in. I love the people who are studying and working with me. Smiles express my sincere love of the world.

I like s. I like s. because I know life is hard – very, very hard. There are days with sunshine, but there are also dark nights; we enjoy happiness, but we also experience sorrows; sometimes we gain success, sometimes we have failures. S. express my deep understanding of life.

A s. is a facial expression. It is so simple that even a baby can do it. Sometimes we find it so easy to s., when we are enjoying ourselves, when we are sharing happiness with our friends and when we are facing the sun of life.  But sometimes we find it very difficult to smile, even to pretend to smile, when are having troubles, when we are suffering from being misunderstood by others and when we suddenly find that we are not as clever as we think.

I really don’t know that I can s. at these times. But I’d like to try, because I like s.

I s. when I am in the sunshine of successes.  I s. for my optimistic view of the splendid future.

I also s. when I am in the darkness of frustration. I s. for my self-confident in coping with the pain.

I used to expect that I would never fail in my life. But when, I later entered a larger world, I realized that I was wrong there. I began to acknowledge that I have as many shortcomings as virtues, and it is natural for me to fail sometimes on my life road. So if I really fail, I will face it with a s. Yet, I am confident to succeed again.

I s. when I am in the company of my friends, classmates and roommates. I also s. when I am misunderstood by others.

We can’t avoid frictions between people, especially between students who are living and studying together on the campus. You may step on other’s feet or be stepped on by others in the dining room; you may offend your roommates or be offend by them; your meat may be another person’s poison. At these times, you may get angry, so may others. If you s., that will give others a feeling of understanding, or a symbol of apology, and that will be helpful to release the tension. I think this is much better than staring at each other or striking violently into each other’s faces.

Once a friend asked me, “You are always s, but do you get angry sometimes?” I s. and told him that I do get angry and sometimes very angry if I’m really annoyed. But I do not want others to be the targets of my letting off.  I know we are all human beings, we are equal.

S. are part of my life – I like s. a lot. I like to s. to show my love of the world, love of others. And I sincerely hope that I will be answered by other s. faces.”

I wonder where this Chinese person is 25 years later, I really like his philosophy of life. It certainly made me smile.

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Kazakhstan and “De Sunflower Ain’t De Daisy” poem

I read this poem from Isobel Kuhn’s book “Nests Above the Abyss” and LOVE it still today.  I believe the meaning of this poem fits the university in Astana, Kazakhstan where I used to work and teach. This flagship university only opened their doors a year ago with 500 Kazakh students but want to be known and acclaimed as the “Harvard of the steppes of Central Asia.”  If so, the administration needs to continue to work hard at their goals of keeping standards high and not lagging in achieving those goals honestly.

See what you think of this poem when thinking about Kazakhstan striving to be in the top 50 of developed nations by 2030.  I witnessed this same kind of obsessive drive with China when I taught there for two years in Harbin in 1986-88. My Chinese students were programmed to talk about what they would do for their motherland. The word “reform” kept coming up over and over again.  See where China is today economically…but to what cost as far as their human rights issues?  What does China do against their own people?  What does Kazakhstan do or NOT do to their own people who are not fortunate enough to live in the big cities of Almaty and Astana?

De sunflower ain’t de daisy and de melon ain’t de rose,

Why is dey all so crazy to be sumfin’ also dat grows?

Jes’ stick to de place you’re planted and do de best you knows.

Be de sunflower or de daisy, de melon or de rose,

Don’t be what you ain’t,

Jes’ you be what yo is.

Pass de plate if you can’t exhaust and preach.

If you’re jes’ a little pebble don’t try to be de beach.

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